Using cards for divination and readings

The Origins of Playing Cards

Research indicates that cards made from paper most likely originated in China, possibly as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) when woodblock printing was invented, and that they were used for playing games and gambling. They may also have functioned in China as a form of paper currency.

Chinese Money Cards
Chinese Money Cards

By the middle of the 15th Century CE, play-money cards divided into four suits were reported in China. The suit designs derived from those on early Chinese banknotes and each suit had a different value. Many scholars believe that these Chinese money cards inspired the familiar four-suited pip cards of Western playing cards.

The earliest playing cards considered to have directly influenced later Western designs are the so-called Mamluk cards, named after the Islamic Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (1250-1517 CE) when they are presumed to have been made. These have elaborate hand-painted patterns very similar to those found on Chinese money cards and, like money cards, are divided into four suits. It has been claimed that a few apparent Mamluk card fragments may date from the 13th or 14th centuries, but the two surviving (though incomplete) decks have been dated to the 15th century.

Mamluk kanjifah cards
Four 16th Century Mamluk Cards.
From Left: 6 of Coins, 4 of Polo Sticks, 3 of Cups, 7 of Swords

The complete Mamluk decks would have contained 52 (possibly 56) cards, comprised of four suits of 13 (possibly 14) cards. The suits are:

  • CUPS

Each suit has ten pip cards and three court cards with Arabic inscriptions that can be translated as king, viceroy (or governor), and second governor. There is also a possible fourth court card that indicates a helper or aide, although this may be an alternate representation of the king. Interestingly, these inscriptions suggest that the court cards may have had some oracular meaning. For example, the inscription for the helper of coins has been translated as, 'Rejoice in the happiness that returns as a bird sings its joy' (Kaplan, 1978, p.53).

Playing Card Suit Variations
Suit Variations

By the late 14th or early 15th century, these 'Moorish' cards had entered Europe, most likely overland to Italy via Turkey, and by sea via the Iberian peninsula. Their designs were reproduced in Italy, Spain and other European countries, but simplified and adapted for the local markets. In this way, polo sticks (unknown in Europe) became clubs and the court cards changed to King, Queen, and Knave. The suit designs also became increasingly stylized, although with national and regional differences. Eventually, the 'French' style of suit designs became dominant in the English-speaking world - swords were changed to spades, cups to hearts, coins to diamonds, and clubs were represented by a three-leaf clover. The French style also standardized the deck at 52 cards, with four suits of 13 cards.

In the United States during the 1850s, a Joker was added to the deck as a trump card in the popular game of Euchre. Since that time, these standard French-suited decks have generally included one or two jokers for use as a special trump or wild card in various games.

Cartomancy and the Tarot

Cartomancy is the use of cards for divination or fortune telling.

Cartomancy can take many forms. Different sets of cards and procedures may be used, and these may be based on a variety of philosophical, theoretical and interpretive systems.

The most well-known type of cartomancy is tarot reading. Although it is sometimes claimed that tarot cards date back more than a thousand years - perhaps to Ancient Egypt or to early migrations of Romany people from India - modern scholarship suggests that the tarot most likely originated in Italy or Germany sometime in the 15th century CE.

The Magician from the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo tarocchi deck

In Italy, the cards were known as Trionfi (Triumphs, or Trumps) and were used for playing a game of the same name. By the early 16th century, a similar game known as Tarocho (later tarocchi or tarocchini) became popular, from which the modern word Tarot is derived.

Cards from several early tarot decks have beautiful hand-painted illuminations and were therefore expensive to produce. Among these, the several 15th century Visconti-Sforza Tarot sets are exquisite. In addition to their use in games, these may also have served as status symbols to be cherished and displayed by the wealthy Italian families who commissioned them. The allegorical imagery that characterizes many of the cards also suggests that they may have had an educational purpose.

Although no complete Visconti-Sforza tarocchi decks have survived, the most complete set is 74 cards from the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo deck. Originally, this deck comprised 78 untitled cards - 22 unnumbered trump cards and four 14-card suits, representing Batons, Cups, Swords, and Coins. Because there are no words on the cards, the original titles of the four court cards remain unclear. Also, other surviving examples of Visconti-Sforza tarocchi cards exhibit variations suggesting that the 78-card composition of these decks was not universally accepted at this time.

By the mid 18th century, the Italian game had spread into France and other European countries due to the popularity of the printed Tarot de Marseilles, which was first produced in the mid 17th century. Despite the earlier variations in the composition of tarocchi sets, The Tarot de Marseilles helped to establish the now familiar 78-card tarot deck of 22 named Trump cards (21 numbered cards and an unnumbered Fool) and four 14-card suits. Unlike playing cards, where the suit designations and patterns changed and became stylized over time, most tarot decks have retained the traditional Marseilles attributions in which the suits are Batons, Cups, Swords, and Coins. The four court cards also typically continue to be based on the names used in the Marseilles deck - King, Queen, Knight, and Knave or Page.

Print, playing-card (BM 1904,0511.47.1-78 3)
Trump cards from the Tarot de Marseilles
(Modern reproduction)

In the late 18th century, the Tarot de Marseilles came to the attention of the Protestant Pastor and Freemason, Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784). De Gébelin interpreted the tarot as encapsulating the wisdom of the Book of Thoth of the ancient Egyptians. He also promoted a presumed connection between the 22 tarot trumps and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Shortly after the publication of de Gébelin's theories, Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738–1791), writing under the pseudonym Etteilla, released the first systematic guide to esoteric tarot reading. Etteilla was also the first to connect the four card suits to the four classical elements (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water) and to propose correspondences between tarot cards and astrological principles including the planets and zodiac signs. As a result of his deliberations, Etteilla created and published his own original tarot deck (Livre de Thot), specially designed for use in divination, and developed various consultation procedures, or 'spreads'.

Three cards from the Etteilla Tarot
Three cards from Etteilla's Livre de Thot Tarot (c. 1785)
The Queen of France (#23), Death (#17), The Last Judgement (#16)
Public Domain (Wellcome Collection)

RWS Tarot 00 Fool
The Fool from the Rider-Waite Tarot

Through the work of de Gébelin and Etteilla, the tarot attracted the interest of many occultists, Kabbalists, and other esoteric practitioners, especially those following the Western magical tradition. Notable among these are Alphonse Louis Constant [Éliphas Lévi] (1810–1875), Jean-Baptiste Pitois [Paul Christian] (1811-1877), A.E. Waite (1857–1942), Gérard Encausse [Papus] (1865–1916), and Aleister Crowley (1875-1947).

In the late 19th century, tarot divination also became an important element in the curriculum of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. A.E. Waite and Aleister Crowley (both former members of the Golden Dawn) each created their own versions of the tarot in collaboration, respectively, with occultists and artists Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) and Lady Frieda Harris (1877-1962). Waite's popular Rider-Waite Tarot was first published in 1909. Aleister Crowley's distinctive Thoth Tarot first appeared as 'The Book of Thoth' in 1944, although the cards themselves were not published until 1969.

In recent years, tarot decks have become highly collectible and it has become fashionable for artists and illustrators to design and publish decks containing their own original artwork. Although many of these decks are very beautiful, only a few offer any new insights into the structure and meaning of the tarot, or the process of tarot divination.

Major and Minor Arcana

The trumps and suited cards have formed one deck for many centuries. It is likely, however, that they were originally two separate sets, each used for a different game, and were combined into a gaming deck of 78 cards (along with other variants) sometime in the 15th century.

In esoteric traditions, the 22 trumps are generally known as the 'Major Arcana' and the 56 suited cards as the 'Minor Arcana', terms that were first used in 1870 by Jean-Baptiste Pitois, writing under the pseudonym Paul Christian. Although nowadays the Major Arcana are usually considered to be the most significant divinatory indicators, early records suggest that it was the regular suited cards that were first used for fortune-telling. For example, the Mainzer Kartenlosbuch (Mainz Fortune-Telling Book), believed to have been published around 1487, gives oracular meanings to the suited cards, whereas no documents have been found to show that the tarocchi (trump) cards were used for fortune-telling in the 15th century (Kaplan, 1978).

In practice, both the Major and Minor Arcana have value as tools for divination, whether used separately or in combination. However, because the imagery of the Major Arcana essentially derives from and reflects Italian Renaissance culture and social structures, it can appear anachronistic and alien to many modern eyes. As a result, later interpretations of these cards may differ markedly from their original symbolic or allegorical intent. The complexities and uncertainties surrounding the Major Arcana, and resulting disagreements about their meanings, can also create practical difficulties for those learning tarot reading.

For these reasons, and because the Minor Arcana have a simple and more or less standard arrangement, they have certain advantages for divination. In particular, their regular structure (four suits each of ten numbered and four court cards) permits the attribution of interpretive consistencies that can make it much easier to understand, learn, and remember the meanings of each card.

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Cartomancy with Playing Cards

If we restrict divination to the Minor Arcana, many people may prefer to use ordinary playing cards, especially as the historical evidence suggests that these were used for fortune-telling well before tarocchi cards were introduced. Cartomancy using playing cards has been practiced ever since, and was especially popular in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Although often considered little more than an amusing diversion or parlor game, more serious applications become possible when the direct connections to the tarot's Minor Arcana and other esoteric systems are recognized. While they may be visually less attractive than tarot cards, and appeal less to our sense of the mysterious or exotic, playing cards have the advantages of familiarity and ready availability. For many people, they can be an ideal way to learn and practice divination and psychic reading. More generally, they can also be used as a tool for self-exploration and self-discovery.

There are many popular books on cartomancy with playing cards. You will also find much on the Internet, though the quality of this can vary. Because a normal deck of cards is being used, most of the methods taught in this way require memorizing the specific interpretations of each card. Alternatively, you will need to look up this information in the book or webpage during the consultation. However, the Psychic Science Cartomancy Reader Deck has been specially designed as a self-contained tool in which the necessary information is included on the cards themselves. Very little or no memory work is required, and you do not need to look anywhere else to obtain the guidance you seek. The downside, of course, is that you have to purchase our special deck. Yet, if you practice regularly with these cards, you will most likely find that you remember or can deduce each card's attributions, so that it then becomes possible to use any deck. This learning process is itself greatly facilitated by the Reader Deck's essentially simple and logical structure, which is based on traditional numerological and astrological principles.

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The Suits

Etteilla is believed to be the first person to propose that the four tarot suits are connected to the four classical elements of the Ancient Greeks. Etteilla associated Batons with Earth, Cups with Water, Swords with Air, and Coins with Fire. In the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the elemental associations for Cups and Swords remain the same, but those for Batons and Coins are reversed. The Golden Dawn's correspondences are now almost universally accepted by tarot users as being the most rational and meaningful.

The Reader Deck has adopted the Golden Dawn's elemental attributions, as these apply to playing cards.



The significance of these attributions for cartomancy is that each element is traditionally associated with different aspects of human experience. The elements are also directly correlated with the four functions of consciousness recognized in C.G. Jung's theory of psychological types.


FIRE INTUITION WILL Purpose, Intention, Drive
WATER FEELING HEART Emotions, Sentiments, Attachments
AIR THINKING HEAD Mind, Intellect, Rationality
EARTH SENSATION BODY Senses, Physicality, Material needs

The Pip Cards

The ten numbered cards in each suit each represents a different aspect of the corresponding elemental principle, or a different way in which the energy of that element is expressed.

These aspects or energies reflect the esoteric meanings traditionally attached to the ten numbers, which remain essentially the same for each suit. The number system used in the Reader Deck is based on that taught by the Golden Dawn. This itself derives from astrological, Kabbalistic, Neoplatonic, and related ideas found in 15th and 16th century Renaissance Magic. It is no coincidence that this was the very period when the tarot was spreading throughout Europe.

In this system, the ten numbers correspond to qualities associated with the classical planets (including Sun and Moon) and related astrological concepts.


1 SOURCE POWER Seed, Essence
2 SKY EMERGENCE Appearance, Unveiling
3 SATURN SURENESS Steady, Controlled
5 MARS STRENGTH Combative, Energetic
6 SUN VITALITY Radiant, Optimistic
7 VENUS HARMONY Gentle, Loving
8 MERCURY DIVERSITY Quick, Versatile
9 MOON CHANGE Changeable, Instinctive
REALIZATION Solid, Settled

A representation of the Celestial Spheres (1539)

The assignment of Sun, Moon and planets in this system is not abitrary, but directly reflects the relative speeds at which these bodies move through the zodiac signs, as viewed from Earth (Saturn being the slowest, Moon the fastest, and Sun midway). This was the basis for the geocentric model of the celestial spheres developed by Ptolemy (c. 100 – c. 170 CE)

The numerical sequence (3-9) of the classical planets also corresponds directly with those in the series of planetary magic squares constructed by the Renaissance scholar and occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) whose highly influential Three Books Concerning Occult Philosophy were published in 1531 and 1533.

The Agrippa planetary magic squares
The Agrippa Magic Squares (1533)

The Court Cards

In the Reader Deck, the three Court Cards in each suit represent expressions of three archetypal social roles - Father, Mother, and Youth (Child).

It is important to note that 'Father,' 'Mother' and 'Youth' symbolize roles that anyone can adopt, irrespective of gender and age. The King, Queen, and Jack do not, therefore, only apply to (or necessarily imply) a male or female person, or to someone who is older or younger.

In some procedures, one of the court cards (called the Significator) is removed from the deck at the beginning of the reading and placed face-up on the table. The Significator card is chosen based on the inquirer's personality, current role or situation.


KING FATHER Authority, Support
QUEEN MOTHER Provision, Nurture
JACK YOUTH Innocence, Potential

Suits and Signs

Zodiac Sign Elements
Zodiac Elements

The meaning that is attributed to each card depends not only on its numerical value or courtly role, but also on its suit and associated element.

In the Reader Deck, the FOUR ACES represent the primary influence of the corresponding ELEMENTS. The remaining cards reflect principles that are represented by the ZODIAC SIGNS.

In traditional western astrology, each zodiac sign is associated with both an ELEMENT and QUALITY.

The ELEMENT for each zodiac sign is determined by the sequence Fire-Earth-Air-Water. This cycle repeats throughout the year, beginning with Aries (Fire) at the beginning of Spring, and ending with Pisces (Water) at the end of Winter.

Zodiac Sign Qualities
Zodiac Qualities and the Seasons

The QUALITY of a sign reflects its position in the seasonal cycle and represents the developmental or gestatory role it plays within its season. Three qualities are traditionally recognized - Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable. Cardinal signs are the creative initiators (at the beginning of a season). Fixed signs (in the middle of a season) provide a stable environment and foster maturation. Mutable signs (at the end of a season) shake things up and facilitate transformation to the following season.

In the Golden Dawn teachings, the Zodiac Signs are attributed to the tarot's NUMBER CARDS (2 - 10), in groups of three, based on the suit's ELEMENT and a sequence in which the group's QUALITY changes from Cardinal, to Fixed, to Mutable. The Reader Deck has adopted the Golden Dawn attributions.

For the COURT CARDS, the Reader Deck departs from the complex Golden Dawn astrological attributions. Instead, a simpler arrangement is adopted in which the Kings represent a Cardinal influence, Queens represent Fixed, and Jacks represent Mutable.

Combining the elements and qualities, we obtain the following zodiacal structure of the Reader Deck.


Fervent, Vigorous
2, 3, 4, K
ARIES Assertive, Ardent
5, 6, 7, Q
LEO Creative, Dramatic
8, 9, 10, J
SAGITTARIUS Adventurous, Liberal
Fluid, Yielding
2, 3, 4, K
CANCER Sensitive, Nurturing
5, 6, 7, Q
SCORPIO Intense, Serious
8, 9, 10, J
PISCES Intuitive, Fanciful
Boundless, Free
2, 3, 4, K
LIBRA Balanced, Strategic
5, 6, 7, Q
AQUARIUS Independent, Innovative
8, 9, 10, J
GEMINI Communicative, Restless
Solid, Sturdy
2, 3, 4, K
CAPRICORN Pragmatic, Disciplined
5, 6, 7, Q
TAURUS Reliable, Sensual
8, 9, 10, J
VIRGO Analytical, Cautious

The 52 Suited Cards

Key to Cards
Reader Deck Card Layout

The oracular meaning of each of the 52 suited cards derives from the way in which its specific astrological meaning (for pip cards) or role (for court cards) is expressed or manifested in its suit and sign. For example, the SEVEN OF HEARTS represents the VENUSIAN principle of Harmony (Gentle, Loving) as expressed in HEARTS (Emotions, Sentiments, Attachments) and manifested in a SCORPIONIC way (Intense, Serious).

In the Reader Deck, these interactions are reflected in the Title, Key Principle, and succinct Oracular Reading that is printed on each card.

Note that because all the relevant information appears on the card, you do not need to commit the theoretical and structural explanations to memory, greatly simplifying the reading process.

The Joker

Finally, we need to consider the Joker. As explained above, the Joker was a very late addition to the playing card deck, and was introduced specifically for use in card games. The Joker can, however, have an important role to play in cartomancy, where it is often compared to the tarot's unnumbered trump card 'The Fool'.

In the Reader Deck, the Joker represents the Trickster archetype and the twin principles of CHANCE (Luck, Fortune) and FATE (Destiny, Karma). In practice, it indicates an unexpected, seemingly random influence on affairs, although one that may be the inevitable consequence of previous actions.

Using Tarot and Cartomancy Decks

The Psychic Science Renaissance Tarot and Cartomancy Decks have been designed as tools for divination, psychic readings, and self-development.

Cartomancy usually begins by asking a question of the cards. As with the I Ching and other forms of divination, your questions should always relate to a specific personal situation, and should seek advice on how best to respond to current and future circumstances. The cards are not intended to offer specific predictions about events. Rather their guidance focuses on the general direction in which you might wish to proceed, and on the qualities needed to skillfully navigate through whatever difficulties and uncertainties you may experience.

There are various technical procedures and 'spreads' that can be used in cartomancy and tarot reading, and you may already have your own favorite methods. The Psychic Science Renaissance Tarot can be used for any standard tarot spread. The Psychic Science Cartomancy Reader Deck may be used for any procedure that uses ordinary playing cards, as well as for tarot spreads that do not require the Major Arcana.

For those new to cartomancy (as well as for more experienced users) we recommend the following procedures. You will find additional suggestions for procedures and spreads in the 'Further Resources' section below.

Single-Card Reading

  • Carefully frame your question and focus on it as you shuffle the face-down deck.

  • When you feel the time is right, place the face-down deck on the table or other surface. Still focussing on your question, cut the deck and complete the cut.

  • Turn the top card face-up.

  • Interpret this card in relation to your question and situation.

This single card method can also be used very effectively every morning, to give a 'heads up' on the theme or personal task that you might expect for that day.

By using this method regularly, you will not only become familiar with the cards, but you will also improve your ability to interpret their meanings. You may also notice that some cards seem to show up quite regularly. Such cards may be particularly significant in your life and should be given special consideration.

Three-Card Spread

  • [Optionally] Select one of the court cards to represent the inquirer, and place this 'Significator' card face-up on the table.

  • Carefully frame your question and focus on it as you shuffle the face-down deck.

  • When you feel the time is right, cut the deck and deal the top three cards, face-down, in a row from left to right.

  • Turn the left-hand card face-up. This card generally indicates factors in the IMMEDIATE PAST that have led to the current circumstances. You should attempt to interpret it in this way.

  • Turn the middle card face-up. This card generally indicates features that are active in the CURRENT SITUATION, and should be interpreted in this light.

  • Turn the right-hand card face-up. This card generally indicates features that may be expected to become important in the IMMEDIATE FUTURE, or what you may need to focus on in order to resolve your situation.

Four-Card Spread (The Seasons)

This spread is useful when you wish to explore the way in which a project or relationship may be expected to develop.

  • [Optionally] Select one of the court cards to represent the inquirer, and place this 'Significator' card face-up on the table. If your question is about a personal relationship, select a second court card to represent the other person and place this face-up next to the first.

  • Carefully frame your question and focus on it as you shuffle the face-down deck.

  • When you feel the time is right, cut the deck and deal the top four cards, face-down, in a row from left to right.

  • Turn the left-hand card face-up. This card represents SPRING and the factors influencing the beginning of the new project or relationship.

  • Turn over the second card dealt. This represents SUMMER, when progress is at its height.

  • Turn over the third card. This represents FALL (Autumn) when things have matured and are beginning to show their age.

  • Turn the fourth card. This represents WINTER, a time for quiet reflection on past progress and future possibilities..

Seven-Card Spread (The Horseshoe)

Seven-Card Spread
Horseshoe Spread
  • [Optionally] Select one of the court cards to represent the inquirer, and place this 'Significator' card face-up on the table.

  • Carefully frame your question and focus on it as you shuffle the face-down deck.

  • When you feel the time is right, cut the deck and deal the first seven cards face-down in a horseshoe from top-left to top-right, encircling the Significator (S) if you have one, as illustrated. Turn over and interpret the cards in the sequence they were dealt.

  • Card 1 indicates the PAST.

  • Card 2 indicates the PRESENT.

  • Card 3 indicates unconscious influences (the SHADOW).

  • Card 4 indicates OBSTACLES.

  • Card 5 indicates the influence of OTHERS.

  • Card 6 indicates needed ACTION.

  • Card 7 indicates the potential OUTCOME.

Twelve-Card Spread (The Astrological Houses)

This more advanced spread is based on the twelve traditional 'houses' of an astrological chart and gives a wide-ranging personal reading that covers multiple areas of life.

Twelve-Card Spread
Astrological Houses Spread
  • Select one of the court cards to represent the inquirer, and place this 'Significator' card face-up on the table.

  • Carefully frame your question and focus on it as you shuffle the face-down deck.

  • When you feel the time is right, cut the deck and deal the first twelve cards FACE-UP in an anti-clockwise circle around the Significator (S), starting at the left, as illustrated. The cards can then be interpreted in any order.

  • Card 1 indicates BEGINNINGS, SELF, and PHYSICAL BODY.


  • Card 3 indicates MIND, THINKING, and COMMUNICATION.

  • Card 4 indicates HOME, FAMILY, and EMOTIONS.


  • Card 6 indicates HEALTH, WORK, and SERVICE.



  • Card 9 indicates EXPLORATION, TRAVEL, and EXPANSION.

  • Card 10 indicates AMBITIONS, ACHIEVEMENT, and AUTHORITY.

  • Card 11 indicates GROUPS, SOCIAL WELFARE, and INNOVATION.

  • Card 12 indicates ENDINGS, SEPARATION, and SPIRITUALITY.

Reversed Cards

Many users like to incorporate reversed cards in their readings. To do this, the deck is cut into two piles at the beginning. One pile is then turned around, top to bottom, and the two face-down piles are shuffled together before continuing with the procedure as normal.

When a reversed card appears in the reading, it is interpreted as a relative ABSENCE or CONTRADICTION of the indications shown on the card.

General Tips

  • Try out different spreads and ways of selecting cards. Choose the procedures that you find most natural and useful.

  • Use your intuition and imagination to expand upon the indications shown on the cards, and to adapt their meanings to your question and situation.

  • Your interpretive ability will improve if you familiarize yourself with the astrological principles on which the Reader Deck is based.

  • Gain personal experience using the Reader Deck before you attempt readings for other people.

Further Resources


Origins of Cartomancy (Playing Card Divination)

The World of Playing Cards

Tarot Wheel

Tarot Heritage


BURGER, Evelin & FIEBIG, Johannes. (2014). Complete Book of Tarot Spreads. Sterling Ethos.

CAVENDISH, Richard (1975). The Tarot. Michael Joseph.

DECKER, Ronald & DUMMETT, Michael. (2013). A History of the Occult Tarot. Duckworth.

GREER, Mary K. (2019). Tarot for Your Self: A Workbook for the Inward Journey. Weiser Books.

HARGRAVE, Catherine P. (2012). A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming. Dover Publications.

KAPLAN, Stuart R. (1978). The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume 1. U.S. Games Systems.

REGARDIE, Israel. (1971). The Golden Dawn: The Original Account of the Teachings, Rites, and Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order. Llewellyn Publications.

STOEFFLER, Kenneth. (2022). A Collection of Mostly 19th Century Cartomancy Methods. Independently published.

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